Succeeding on new platforms

Television news is in a period of advanced change, and the broadcasters who succeed will be those who identify the unique value they bring to new distribution platforms such as broadband and mobile devices, says Paul Slavin, ABC News senior VP newsgathering.

Slavin, who will deliver a keynote speech during the Broadcast Engineering/Broadcasting & Cable News Technology Summit in Chicago, contends that the delivery of video via these platforms is the future of news. But beyond that, there's uncertainty about how best to leverage video, text and audio to win over news consumers online and on-the-go.

“How do we create content that is compelling on a small screen?” he asks rhetorically. “How do we create content that someone has to aggressively go and get — either by searching for it or downloading it — as opposed to just passively accepting it? How do we create a different relationship with our users?”

While Slavin, along with the rest of the television industry, searches for the answers, some general principles are emerging. One is to avoid producing subtle stories for mobile phone viewing.

“Stories for mobile phones have to be broader brush,” he says. “They have to use simpler graphics, and the pictures need to be more apparent. You can't be looking for subtle imagery that you might see in a ‘20/20’ piece.”

Another principle is the role of news personalities.

“News personalities are the stock and trade of what we do with a traditional broadcast,” Slavin says. “Programming for the mobile device has different needs.”

Applying a bit of intelligence to packaging stories for various distribution platforms is another.

“There needs to be an acknowledgement going into the process that you have to take the same content and cut it up into different bits and pieces for a different demographic and a different technical platform,” he says. “There may be a very small expenditure to do so; there may be none whatsoever, except for the expense of intelligence.”

There also needs to be a fresh look at how field footage is acquired to feed the need for more news content.

“I think we may be really adapting a lot of what the local level can already do,” says Slavin. “There are simple things, like the question about the number of crew members that can go out on a shoot. At local stations, sometimes the reporter carries a camera, and sometimes it's a one-man band. It is rarely two people.”

At the network level, sending two- or three-person crews into the field warrants a fresh look.

“We need to be more intelligent about the use of our own resources,” he says. “We need to ask people to be multi-talented. We need to teach people to shoot and edit and report and even broadcast.”

During this transitory time as TV news operations look for the best ways to capitalize on their strengths and new audiences, having the freedom to experiment is critical, Slavin says.

“We are trying 100 different things to see what sticks,” he explains. “You have to be willing with each of these technologies moving forward to fail. You have to be structured for failure. Things will not work. But if you don't fail routinely, then you're never going to succeed occasionally.”

That's not to say there isn't intense competitive pressure to succeed. The same broadband technologies making the Internet a viable new delivery platform for the television industry are allowing non-traditional video competition.

“There was a time when I first came to the business that the competition was CNN, CBS and NBC,” Slavin says. “Now my competition is everybody. What do you do with that? You continue to look for differentiating technologies and content. You look for those things you can create a remote around. You have to get smarter about marketing and smarter about everything because now I am competing with the newspaper in Des Moines.”